As I watched the Ukraine fans cavorting in the away end after Artem Dovbyk sealed a World Cup playoff final against Wales, Arrigo Sacchi’s observation that “football is the most important of the least important things in life” felt especially pertinent. The players raised their fists in relief at a job half done, and the Ukrainian fans embraced, their minds inevitably turning to Cardiff. On Sunday they go again and it is now Rob Page’s job to make Wales the most unpopular team on Earth.
Oleksandr Zinchenko wept during the pre-match press conference on Wednesday, as he described what reaching the World Cup would mean to the people of his wartorn homeland, and how he hoped to bring joy to a country that is undergoing unimaginable suffering. As my admiration for this exceptional young man grew, I thought of all the people I have met who dismiss football as only being 22 people kicking a ball around. This fixture might have felt slightly abstract for a few months (“Wales will face Scotland or Ukraine”) but Sunday is now an event to make any fan’s heart skip a beat. It’s Ukraine at home. World Cup qualification. Winner takes all.
To put the match into a sporting context, Wales haven’t been to a World Cup since the days of topical comedians making jokes about the Suez Crisis. Wales might have reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, but 1958 hangs over us like Mambo No 5 (A Little Bit Of …) hangs over Lou Bega. The last time we competed on football’s biggest stage was prior to the invention of Coffee Mate. Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the rest of our Golden Generation could make history by qualifying for our first World Cup since the farthing was legal tender. It is a prospect that has captivated Welsh supporters for decades.
Even most casual Welsh fans could give you the highlights of our exploits at Sweden ’58. Wales reached the quarter-finals, knocked out by a solitary goal from a 17-year-old Pelé, his first in a World Cup and a goal he would go on to describe as “the most important goal he ever scored” (and this was in an interview for Fifa, he wasn’t doing a tricky after-dinner in Tregaron and trying to get some drunk farmers onside). In classic Welsh tradition, our talisman John Charles and one of the world’s best players at the time was unavailable following injury in the previous game against Hungary, and as Tottenham greats Cliff Jones and Terry Medwin floated in unanswered cross after unanswered cross to the Brazilian box, Charles muttered to Jimmy Murphy, the Welsh manager: “I would have scored that.” Brazil went on to hammer France and Sweden in the semi-final and final respectively, and Wales’s relationship with the World Cup would be conducted at arm’s length for the next 64 years.
Wales will prepare for the showdown with Ukraine in vastly different circumstances to the ones faced by Charles and his teammates, however. The current squad did some warm weather training in Portugal prior to Wednesday’s Nations League defeat by Poland, and will be performing in front of an expectant capacity crowd at the Cardiff City Stadium. The boys of ’58 expected to train at Finchley FC before travelling to Sweden from London, but no one told the groundsman and they arrived in north London to find the pitch was being reseeded.
With no time to find alternative facilities, Wales trained on Hyde Park using coats as goalposts, and Murphy spent these sessions keeping an eye out for overzealous park wardens as ball games were banned. Eventually, a bunch of professional footballers having a kickabout caught people’s attention, and Murphy persuaded a member of Royal Parks staff to turn a blind eye, explaining that his players were about to represent Wales at a World Cup. Not everyone was bothered by these amateurish preparations, though. “We’d trained in worse places” said Medwin. “At least it was flat.”
Wales have come a long way since the 1950s. The Football Association of Wales are in the almost unique position of being a governing body that’s wildly popular with the fans, an institution staffed by people who earned their stripes as supporters. Cardiff’s ground has also come to feel like home for supporters and players alike, the FAW resisting the temptation to move this match to the disliked Principality Stadium, a ground that’s twice the size but somehow generates less than half the atmosphere.
Bale fired Wales into this final with two exquisite goals against Austria in March, and Ramsey (who secured qualification for the last Euros with two goals against Hungary in 2019, on what was his first appearance of that campaign) will hope to prove yet again that a lack of game-time for his club doesn’t stop him from putting in match-winning performances for his country. What Welsh supporters are asking from Bale or Ramsey is actually quite simple. One more career-defining display in a Welsh shirt. Give us the moment that will be repeated on Welsh television every day until the sun eventually swallows the Earth.
What sets this side apart from the Welsh teams that came agonisingly close to qualifying in the past, is that they’ve been playing in games of enormous importance for years. A few of the class of 2016 remain. This current squad has tournament experience from Euro 2020, and plenty tasted World Cup qualification defeat at the hands of the Republic of Ireland in 2017. After qualification for Euro 2016, my friend Mark, a Wales away veteran who has stuck with the team through more bad times than good, told me deliriously that “1958 is no longer my pin number”. If Wales reach the 2022 World Cup, we might upset every neutral on the planet, but Welsh football fans will become a fraudster’s dream.